OPINION | EDITORIAL: City funding mishandled

The city of Pine Bluff has been called on the carpet by the Arkansas Legislative Audit -- this coming Friday -- to explain why there has been a hash made of more than $1.3 million in city finances, all of which is a problem that can be laid at the feet of Mayor Shirley Washington.

About half of that money was stolen, or so it seems, and the other half was improperly handled. It is such a bungled mess that the attorney for the Urban Renewal Agency -- where $670,000 walked off -- was cringing for Urban Renewal Director Chandra Griffin and Washington, who are prepping for the state's interrogation.

"The first one to speak will be the one to get blistered," said attorney Cody Kees at a recent board meeting. "I've been to these, and I've read them in the paper. It's not going to be pleasant."

The findings -- which include such items as a $506,000 lease that was entered into for golf carts without proper approval of the governing board -- are inexcusable and give voice to the criticism of the mayor for wiring around the city council in ways that left the council out of the loop.

There was one voice, however, that attempted to call attention to the issues. Then-Council Member Ivan Whitfield filed a police report about how money was being spent at the Parks and Recreation Department, but no one listened. No one wanted to listen. That was in November, and because he had lost a bid for re-election, he was soon to be exiting that stage.

"As I leave this council, I leave with good conscience knowing that I asked for an investigation into the 2022 budget, and it failed," he said in November. "I tried to get an audit. We asked for one thing, and they posted something different. I tried to get an investigation and it did not happen -- and now I'll take my stuff to the prosecuting attorney and hopefully, they will look into it."

We also have to mention a matter brought up recently by former Council Member Joni Alexander Robinson, who is now running for mayor. Through her own search of records, she discovered that Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley had shockingly easy access to city funds. Apparently all he had to do was call, text or send an email to the city finance office and tell them to send money here or there. Several hundreds of thousands of dollars were involved.

"I am sending this email on behalf of Ms. Griffin with URA," Watley wrote in one email. "She is in need of $200,000 to take care of this month's bills." It was signed "RW."

This is also a good time to point out the absurdity of Watley's argument that Go Forward and Urban Renewal are not connected at the hip. Watley is not a city employee, yet with the wave of his wand, he directed city money to be applied to the finances of Urban Renewal, which is a city operation run by Griffin, a city employee, who should have been looking after her department's finances herself.

Mainly, however, his practice of directing money in this way relied on no supporting paperwork as backup for the transfers -- which, once again, fits into the state auditor's narrative that city tax dollars in Pine Bluff are not being handled with prudence.

"I'm showing you all this because, first of all, no council member in their individual capacity -- not even the mayor -- can contact the finance department and tell them to move money," said Robinson in a Facebook video on the subject. "Especially for someone who does not work for the city. None of these transfers of money and budget adjustments went through the city council."

Faced with such a negative presentation of how Watley was able to move with such freedom, Washington put a stop to the practice, at one point saying what Watley was doing didn't look good in light of the missing money.

"It hadn't been a problem to this point, but we are taking a look at a lot of measures and steps that we had in the process that we used -- especially after what happened with the misappropriations of funds with Urban Renewal, the employee and the money that came up missing," said Washington. "We have been trying to put some safeguards in place."

That is the sound of a mayor acting reactively, not proactively.

And for what it's worth, as you may recall, a political action committee supporting Go Forward raised money with a key purpose of defeating Whitfield, an effort that was successful. So the one person on the council savvy enough to blow the whistle on the city's shoddy fiscal practices is now gone. Why?

Because he didn't support Go Forward.